A rewarding walk, which gives a sense of Stromness’ place within Orkney’s surrounding land and seascape, while also taking in the town’s famously winding street.
Stromness is a town built, literally and figuratively, on the sea. Its harbourside homes jut out on their snub-nosed stone piers into the waters of Hamnavoe.
For centuries this haven, with its unsurpassed access to the western seas, has provided shelter for traders, pirates, explorers and fisherfolk.
A walk through its streets and surrounding land gives an appreciation of how this small town grew, and continues to thrive.
We start at the town’s pierhead, just in front of the imposing façade of the Stromness Hotel.
Close at hand you’ll spot a bronze statue of Orkney’s great Arctic explorer, Dr John Rae. Born just a couple of miles across the bay at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir, Rae is credited with discovering the final section of the fabled Northwest Passage, though his revelations that the earlier, ill-fated Franklin expedition had been reduced to cannibalism in their final, desperate days saw him shunned by the 19th century establishment.
Rae was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur-trading enterprise which was inextricably linked to Stromness and its fortunes. The company recruited hardy Orcadians, many of whom married First Nations women and settled in Canada.
Facing the Stromness Hotel, turn left to head south into Victoria Street. After around 40m on the left you’ll find the Pier Arts Centre. Based around a former storehouse of the Hudson’s Bay Company, it’s now home to a world-renowned collection featuring some of the major names in 20th century British art.
Follow the narrow street as it gently wends its way southwards (a range of independent shops may well slow your progress). A small plaque on a gable opposite the Bank of Scotland marks the childhood home of actor and author Robert Shaw – best-known for his role as the flinty shark-hunter Quint in the film Jaws. Various other plaques along the street pay tribute to the wide range of independent and adventurous souls to have been connected with the town over the centuries.
Carry on through Dundas Street into Alfred Street. A little over half a kilometre into the walk you’ll come to the Stromness Museum: the perfect place to learn more about explorer John Rae, as well as the stories of the other names you may have seen commemorated on the walk so far. It’s a history which connects this small town with all four corners of the earth. The museum also contains a fascinating natural history section.
Diagonally across from the museum is the former home of Orkney’s most famous poet, the late George Mackay Brown – a man who was passionate about this town and the narrow street along which we’re walking.
Carrying on south, you pass Login’s Well. This is where John Franklin’s ships took on water before heading to their fate in the Arctic ice, and as the street opens towards Ness Road a small cannon overlooks the approaches into the harbour. Captured from an American privateer, the cannon was fired to mark the arrival of ships of the Hudson’s Bay fleet.
From here carry on south, passing the council-run campsite, to the Point of Ness. During the late 19th century this was an important site in the town’s role as a major base for the herring fishery. Upwards of 400 boats would land their catches in Stromness at first light, having netted the ‘silver darlings’ in the dark seas to the west of Orkney through the night. Fishing - mainly for crab and lobster - remains an important industry for the town, but more recently the buildings here have been used as part of the development of marine renewable energy. It’s an emerging sector which is now an increasingly vital part of the local economy.
From the Point of Ness take the path which closely follows the coast southwest then west. Across the waters of Hoy Sound lies the island of Graemsay, and behind that the dark hills of Hoy itself. Pods of orca are often spotted passing through these waters.
Around 700m from the Point of Ness on your right you’ll notice a high chain-link fence, behind which lies a compound of old wartime buildings. This is the Ness Battery, an important part of the WW2 defences of Scapa Flow, which was the main base for the British Fleet in both world wars. Tours of this fascinating site can be arranged by appointment.
Carry on further west, taking care at points where coastal erosion is threatening the path, and in a little less than a kilometre you’ll come to the old cemetery at Warebeth. Remains of a Norwegian fishing boat, grounded here in the 1960s, can still be seen above the high tide mark. Hoy Sound has seen countless shipwrecks, and acts of heroic rescue, over the centuries. From here, the impressively sinuous headland of the Kame of Hoy is well seen. A passing fishing boat or the Scrabster ferry always gives these cliffs a truer sense of scale. Watch for gannets feeding beyond the outlying skerry of the Kirk Rocks.
A short distance onwards is the beach of Warebeth itself. The name comes from the Scottish (and Orcadian) word for seaweed – ware or wair. It’s well-named, as in winter this beach is often heaped high with mounds of kelp, a magnet for flocks of seabirds.
Follow the path around the head of the beach, passing the bench and small parking place. Take the obvious vehicle track that cuts inland to the right, passing between a former farmhouse and its outbuildings. After about 800m you’ll arrive at a T-junction. Turn right to follow the single-track road back towards Stromness, with fine views south towards Hoy and Graemsay.
After 1.5km turn right at the mini roundabout, before taking the first road on the left, which descends, quite steeply, back towards the town’s main street. As you walk down-hill you’ll pass two tall white posts with lights on top. These are the harbours ‘leading lights’. Vessels approaching Stromness ensure the two lights are in line for safe passage between the Point of Ness and the sheltering holms.
At the foot of Hellihole Road turn left to return along the street to the start of the walk.
Visit the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website for more information and advice on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
- Places of interest
Stromness is a fascinating place to spend some time. As well as the attractions highlighted above, a simple wander through the street is a real joy. Explore the many nooks and crannies, and step out onto the piers and slipways to breathe in the sea air.
If you're spending some more time in Stromness then you should take a trek up Brinkie's Brae for stunning views out over Scapa Flow and its western approaches. There's also a swimming pool and fitness suite in the town.
And, if you time your visit right, you could get caught up in the fiddling frenzy of the Orkney Folk Festival - the town is home to pub sessions, concerts and performances over the course of the festival weekend every May.
- Food & drink
There are plenty of food and drink options in the town. For meals you can try Julia's Bistro, The Ferry Inn, the Stromness Hotel, the Royal Hotel and the Pier Bistro & Takeaway, which offer a mix of bar meals, à la carte options and light bites. The town is home to an excellent Chinese takeaway too, which also offers traditional fish & chips. Do check with each business before visiting as some services operate on a seasonal basis.
Shops like Argos Bakery, E. Flett Butchers and the Bayleaf Deli have an excellent range of snacks and other goods, including hot drinks, sandwiches and much more. Across the bay at Garson Industrial Estate, you'll find the Orkney Fish shop, offering plenty of fresh fish and snacks. There's also a Co-op supermarket in the town.
- Transport & services
Orkney's X1 bus service runs between St Margaret's Hope and Stromness daily. View the full timetable on the Orkney Islands Council website.
Petrol is available at the North End Garage in the town.
Public toilets are available at Ferry Road, the Stromness Ferry Terminal, Stromness Pierhead and at Warebeth Cemetery.
I have done this walk many times and would rate it as easy plus. The views are stunning; one just needs the weather.